BEIJING, March 7 (Reuters) - China expects 60,000 people to lose their homes in the remote southwest if a series of four dams along the country's last free-flowing river gets the go-ahead, a local official said on Thursday in the first government estimate for relocations.
Outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao, a geologist by trade and populist by instinct, vetoed the dams in Yunnan province on the UNESCO-protected Nu River, known outside China as the Salween, in 2005, after an outcry from environmentalists.
But in late January, the government unexpectedly announced that dam building would resume, with the Nu River high on the list for development.
Qin Guangrong, Yunnan's Communist Party chief, told reporters on the sidelines of China's annual meeting of parliament that work had not yet begun.
But Li Siming, head of the prefecture along the Myanmar border where the dams would be built, said the prefecture had already begun looking at how to relocate people.
"The initial estimate is that 60,000 people will have to be relocated," Li told Reuters. Most are from the ethnic Lisu minority.
"We've not yet got to the stage of working out where they will be relocated to. There are no details yet on whether the projects will even happen," he added. "There are limited amounts of land."
China relocated 1.3 million people during the 17 years it took to complete the massive, $59 billion Three Gorges Dam, built in a much more heavily populated area in central China.
Li, an ethnic Lisu himself, said the environmental impact assessment had not been completed and he did not know when construction might start.
"The whole process, from the central government to the provincial government to the prefectural government, will be open to the public - it's part of the policy of 'letting the light shine on the government'," he said.
Environmentalists have long complained about the lack of transparency about the dam project.
"The problem is that for a matter that has provoked concern from the international community, they have never held a hearing before," Wang Yongchen, an environmentalist who has long campaigned for the Nu River, told Reuters recently.
Li said that most residents supported the dam project, but added that "a minority" did not.
"If we see that development of hydropower resources on the Nu River will not benefit the local people, then we will not do it," he said.
Li sounded uncertain, however, when asked if he personally supported the project.
"I grew up along the Nu River. How to protect it, how to develop it, how to use it, I have my own opinions on that," he said. "I'm a local boy: we've always relied on the land, and the water.
"As head of the prefecture, I'm always thinking about how to protect the land but also how to use it. This is always on my mind... It's not about whether I personally support it or not." (Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie)